Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Case Study No. 1669: Frank Cifaldi (Wannabe Librarian)

Outerlands: Season 1 - Short - Frank Cifaldi's Magazine Collection

Game preservationist Frank Cifaldi walks us through some highlights of his immense gaming magazine collection including a look at the only English-language review of Super Mario Bros. to run during the launch period of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the first gaming magazine ever printed.

Music: Jim Guthrie and Disasterpeace

Outerlands: Season 1 is a six-part documentary series on the people and culture of videogames. Features music by Jim Guthrie, Disasterpeace, and Virt. With art by Cory Schmitz, David Hellman, and Phil Fish.

From the creators of The 1UP Show, CO-OP, I Am Street Fighter, and GROUNDED: Making The Last of Us.

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[scene opens with a man ("Frank Cifaldi, Game Preservationist") in his apartment, as he drinks a cup of coffee while his cat mills about]
FRANK: [in voice over] To sort of research unreleased games, I need a reference library, and so ... uh, I have this enormous semi-embarrassing collection of stupid video game magazines from the eighties and nineties that are all really terrible to read, but like priceless as far as information goes.
[cut to him leafing through a few of the magazines, then cut to a shot of several shelves filled with gaming magazines]
FRANK: [in voice over] I've got probably most of the American console magazines from the twentieth century, which is kind of my cut-off point. IGN and GameSpot are still online--
[he laughs, then cut to Frank and another man speaking directly to the camera]
FRANK: And they were covering stuff by now, so I figure Two Thousand's a pretty safe cut-off point.
GUY: Mm hmm.
[cut to a shot of Frank looking at a copy of "Electronic Games" (with blurbs on the cover like "Can Asteroids Conquer Space Invaders?" and "Inside the TRS-80 Color Computer")]
FRANK: [in voice over] This is the first video game magazine ever published. This is the first issue of "Electronic Games" from, uh, I think Winter Nineteen Eighty One.
[cut to Frank holding a copy of "Video" ("Buyer's Guide for the Home Video Enthusiast")]
FRANK: [in voice over] Um, this was spun off from a magazine called "Video," which was a VCR magazine.
[cut back to him flipping through the pages of "Electronic Games"]
FRANK: But it's kinda neat to see where it all started, and these old Atari ads and ... I dunno, I kinda miss when video games looked this weird.
[he stops at an ad for "Crush, Crumble and Chomp!" and points at the dinosaur]
FRANK: I mean, lookit that guy!
[cut to a closeup of his face, as he smiles]
FRANK: I love this old stuff!
[cut to a closeup of an Intellivision ad in the magazine featuring George Plimpton ("Two pictures are worth a thousand words")]
[cut to Frank placing the first issue of "Nintendo Power" (with Mario and Wart from "Super Mario Bros 2" on the cover) on the table]
FRANK: [in voice over] Everyone remembers "Nintendo Power," this is the infamous first issue.
[cut to Frank flipping through some more magazines]
FRANK: Um, actually, I do have some ... magazines that Nintendo put out before "Nintendo Power."
[he pulls out a few copies of the "Nintendo Fun Club News" (with games like the original "Legend of Zelda" and "Mike Tyson's Punch-Out" on the covers) and places them on the table]
FRANK: It was the "Fun Club News." Basically, this was all just free advertising for people to go buy more Nintendo games.
[cut to a closeup of one of the magazines]
FRANK: [in voice over] The, the very very Japanese layouts you'd get in "Nintendo Power" were so fun!
[cut to Frank flipping through some pages featuring "The Legend of Zelda"]
FRANK: This is what my childhood was, this is what it looked like!
[he unfolds the "Complete Strategy Map of the Overworld" from the magazine]
FRANK: It looked like a big Zelda map!
[cut to Frank placing an issue of "GamePro's Celebrity Video Gamers" (with J.D. Roth on the cover) on the table]
FRANK: Here's a favorite of mine ... "GamePro's Celebrity Video Gamers!" From, uh, September-October Ninety One.
[he starts flipping through the magazine]
FRANK: So, what I really like about this ... this is awesome, um--
[he stops at a picture of J.D. Roth]
FRANK: Oh, look at this sweater!
[cut to him flipping through some more pages]
FRANK: So they interview all these people, and they're like, "So what's your favorite game?" And everyone's like, "Oh, I like Mario, I like Tetris."
[cut to a closeup of Frank's face]
FRANK: They interview Macaulay Culkin and they're like, "What's your favorite game?"
[cut to Frank pointing at the page featuring Culkin]
FRANK: His favorite game's "Splatterhouse!"
[cut to a closeup of the page]
FRANK: What's your favorite carts? "Splatterhouse, definitely ... Oh, and Bloody Wolf."
[he laughs]
FRANK: Macaulay Culkin was a TurboGrafx kid, Macaulay Culkin's cool by me! I'd love to hang out and play TurboGrafx games with Macaulay Culkin!
[cut to a closeup of Frank's face]
FRANK: If you're listening, Macaulay Culkin, come on over! I got a PC Engine, we'll hook it up!
[cut to Frank speaking directly to the camera]
FRANK: I need to have all these pieces and connect the dots. And sort of be able to put together a narrative of what happened to a game in order to, uh, contextualize it and make sense of it and be able to put that online somewhere.
[cut to a closeup of a fold-out ad for "Final Fantasy" games featuring on the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy (entitled "We See The Future As A Never-Ending Battle")]
FRANK: [in voice over] "Final Fantasy," we know, came out here on the NES. Uh, but Square was actually planning to ship "Final Fantasy II," which never ... which was only released in Japan at that time.
[the camera focuses on the box reading "Final Fantasy II"]
FRANK: [in voice over] Never happened. Here's the box art.
[cut to Frank holding an unlabelled NES cartridge]
FRANK: I actually have here the only known prototype cartridge of "Final Fantasy II." Uh, I don't own this, I'm just kind of ... holding onto it for its owner, but that's who that looks like.
[he shakes his head]
FRANK: I've no idea how this survived. Uh, but it did, and I ended up with it.
[he puts the cartridge back in its protective case]
FRANK: Uh, and that is now safe and secure.
[cut back to Frank speaking directly to the camera]
FRANK: I can help people with this stuff, and I do. I just recently helped a student who wanted to know, uh, what the critical reception was like in the United States for the first "Final Fantasy." And I was like, "Well, I'll tell you!" Because I have everything that covered "Final Fantasy" at the time, which wasn't much.
[cut to Frank placing a large bound book on the table]
FRANK: This is probably my favorite thing that I have right now.
[he turns it around in his hands, as "Computer Entertainment / Video Game Update 1982-1987" can be seen on the spine]
FRANK: When the industry crashed, just went away, there were no video game magazines from like Eighty Five until basically "Nintendo Power" in Eighty Seven, Eighty Eight ... Except for this one!
[he points at the name on the spine]
FRANK: It was run by two women, which is phenomenal even now, 'cause we're such a dude industry ...
[he flips through some of the pages]
FRANK: Not only were they two sisters, one of them was a record executive at Warner Brothers. She was managing Prince, and running a video game magazine!
[cut to Frank flipping through more pages]
FRANK: If you want to know what the critical reception was like for "Super Mario Brothers," this is it! This is the only review that exists in the English language.
[he stops and points at one page ("Computer Entertainment, June 1986"]
FRANK: Right here ...
[he starts reading]
FRANK: "There are countless ways he can discover mushrooms that were made invisible by the Koopa turtles, and running into them can be a rewarding experience."
[cut to a closeup of the review ("The Koopa have cast an evil spell over the Mushroom People, a spell which only Princess Toadstool can break")]
FRANK: [in voice over] "There are coins to collect, too. A whole shower of them in one spot we found."
[cut back to a closeup of Frank's face, as he laughs]
FRANK: That's, that's great!
[cut to another shot of Frank looking at the book]
FRANK: You kinda forget that, at the time "Super Mario Brothers" just felt full of secrets!
[cut to footage of the game]
FRANK: [in voice over] You can press down on this pipe and it's like, "Oh my god, I'm underground! I can go underground?" Y'know, that first time that you hit a block and a beanstalk comes up and it's like, "No way!" It just felt like ... you could just break through the game and find these new worlds.
[cut back to a closeup of Frank's face]
FRANK: Games weren't like that!
[cut to Frank looking at the book]
FRANK: That's sort of the context of "Super Mario Brothers" they forget ... You play it now and like, all this stuff's been done to death.
[cut to another closeup of the review (next to a review of "Soccer" for the NES)]
FRANK: [in voice over] But you read this review from back then, and it's like "Oh, that actually was like, really impressive at the time!"
[cut to more footage from the game
FRANK: [in voice over] To have this game where, like, there's secrets to find.
[cut back to Frank reading from the review]
FRANK: "Super Mario Brothers belongs in that special hall of fame reserved for truly addictive action games, the kind that keep you from being on time for supper ... "
[cut to a closeup of Frank's face, as he laughs]
FRANK: Supper ...
[he continues reading]
FRANK: "The graphics are cute and comical, the music lively, but it's the great depth of play action that keeps you playing again and again. No owner of the Nintendo Entertainment System should be without this game, it's a must. Solo or two-player alternating. Pause."
[he laughs again]
FRANK: The pause ... Pause as a feature was worth pointing out, next to number of players!
[cut to Frank flipping through the book]
FRANK: This is on loan to me from the ... editor of this magazine. Uh, this is on its way to the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. I've literally never in my ten years seen an issue of this for sale. So this is incredibly rare and I've got the only, that I know of, y'know, collection of it here. This is the coolest thing that's ever been in my house, so I can't top that, so I guess we're done here.
[he closes the book, as "Outerlands" appears on screen, then cut to Frank looking over his shelves of magazines]
FRANK: [in voice over] This isn't for my benefit personally. It's like, I just want this archive to exist somewhere and be accessible.
[cut to Frank speaking directly to the camera]
FRANK: If anyone in the Bay Area--
[he laughs]
FRANK: Is an institution that is not going away that wants to house these, you can have 'em!
GUY: It'll make your dating life a little bit better, probably.
FRANK: Yeah, yeah!
[he laughs]
FRANK: I gotta ... yeah, I'm a single guy! I gotta bring girls home to the magazine collection!
GUY: That's, uh, that's a tall order!
FRANK: Yeah, yeah! They're like, "What's that?" I'll be like, "Those are video game magazines!"
[everyone laughs]
FRANK: You like "Nintendo Power," right?

A Six-Episode Documentary Series
By Area 5

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1. Video games are an important cultural institution and artistic medium, and their history is worth saving for future generations to study.

2. Video game history is dying every day. Artifacts are thrown away, code is misplaced, and people pass on.

3. While there are many individual, disparate attempts at saving that history, there is no central organization keeping track of them all.

This blog highlights all of the work being done around the world to make sure video game history isn't being lost. It is operated and maintained by @frankcifaldi, a game developer, archivist, and historian based out of Oakland, CA.



Frank's passion is finding lost games. Prototypes, cancelled titles, failed launches. In fact, his site, Lost Levels is devoted solely to this endeavor. To that end, he's put together perhaps the largest personal collection of videogame magazines anywhere. Yes, he's currently in possession of perhaps the only existing copy of the first English-language review of Super Mario Bros., but these piles of (often terrible) industry mags are treasure troves of information. Ads for games that never came out, mail order forms with overly-optimistic listings of games that were still in the “faking a screenshot” phase, and interviews and commentary that seemed innocent at the time, but are windows into a surprising number of incomplete or abandoned experiments. Frank wants to find them all!

This story is likely to appear in Outerlands in some form and we want to share it with all of you as a representative sample of what you can expect the storytelling to be like if our Kickstarter is successfully funded. Which reminds us: the majority of our backers are coming to us from Twitter, which means that every time you tweet about Outerlands and get others to tweet about us, you're helping in the best way possible to make it happen!

Finally, we can't thank Jim Guthrie and Disasterpeace enough for being so generous in providing the music for us. Go buy their stuff!

Extra special thanks to Tony the Cat!



61 video games have been 'delisted' from Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service to date.

Some, such as the recreations of pithy 80s arcade games like Defender, Robotron 2084, Double Dragon and Gauntlet are readily available to play in compendiums elsewhere or, if you've the budget, on their original cabinets. But others, such as Microsoft's experimental virtual game show 100 vs 1 or Sumo Digital's elegant tribute to arcade racing games OutRun Online Arcade or Double Fine Happy Action Theater (a game designed by Tim Schafer as a way for his two-year old daughter to interact with a TV screen) are no longer available to buy anywhere. These video games may be lost forever in the ebb of digital distribution's uncaring tide.

Microsoft is evasive on the reasons behind the disappearances. Pressed on the issue a spokesperson provided the following tepid statement: "We work closely with our development partners to ensure that gamers have access to great titles through Xbox Live, which sometimes includes the removal of content due to expired rights and licensing or other circumstances specific to developer/publisher terms." Expired rights and licences limiting the sale of video games is nothing new -- it's one of the reasons that we're yet to see a re-release of 1997's seminal, James Bond tie-in Goldeneye 007. But in the past, a licensed game would remain available to buy on the second hand market. In the digital age, there is no physical artefact. Once it's removed from sale, it's gone without trace.

Indeed, while these 61 games remain on Microsoft's servers (anybody who previously bought one of these games and deleted it is currently still able to re-download the game), the moment those servers are shut down, a great swathe of video game history is wiped away. Where once we could place our treasured games and memories in cardboard boxes and store them in attics, increasingly video games are ephemeral things, fleeting and formless.

Frank Cifaldi is a self-professed video game archivist and historian. He runs Lost Levels, a website dedicated to unreleased video games. But he also has a special interest in digital games that made it to market but are no longer available to buy. He works for the studio that made War of the Worlds, one of the disappeared titles on Xbox Live. "It's a big problem already, and I suspect it's going to be even bigger 20 years from now when historians find themselves unable to experience significant works like World of Warcraft," he tells me. "We're always going to be able to approximate the experience of viewing Birth of a Nation the way it was originally intended, but we don't have a solution for how to recreate games that require not only hundreds of active players, but the proprietary servers that may no longer exist."

Some might argue that the deleted games hold little significance: primarily comprised of dated sports games and barely concealed advergames. But for Cifaldi it's not just an issue of not being able to preserve games that are considered culturally significant today. "The maddening part about preserving video game history is that we just don't know what's going to be important 50 years from now," he says. "Art -- especially risky, forward-thinking art like games -- has a way of going unnoticed when it's contemporary and discovered years later. For all we know we're still in the silent movie age of what interactive media is evolves into. If we're not hanging on to every scrap of our history now, we're going to inevitably lose things that could benefit society in the future."

Henry Lowood is curator for the history of science & technology collections and film & media collections in the Stanford University Libraries, where he works to preserve and archive video games. He is optimistic about the work being done to save our games. "In terms of the technical means for preserving software, cultural repositories such as museums, libraries and archives are making great progress." Stanford University Libraries acquired its first major historical collection of software more than 15 years ago. "Since that time, we have been working on a variety of problems related to software preservation such as cataloging, data migration and access," he says. "We have developed a digital repository capable of storing and preserving software and many other forms of digital information and artifacts."

But there are many problems unique to preserving contemporary digital video games in libraries such as Stanford's. Online activations, authentications and online gameplay modes that require active servers in order to work make storing working copies of games almost impossible in some cases. Then, of course, there's the problem of obtaining code for video games that only exist in digital form. "When access to digital-only software is cut-off the likelihood that particular software title will be lost permanently increases," says Lowood. His work at Stanford involves attempting to convince publishers and rights-holders to discuss possible ways of archiving their games. Unfortunately, while a few publishers willing to engage in conversations about how to preserve games, Lowood states: "Many are not".

The situation is compounded by the fact that many developers fail to keep master copies of their own games. "One of the scariest unpublished truths is that video game developers and publishers are, on average, kind of bad at hanging onto their source code," says Cifaldi. "In theory, a game can live forever as long as its source code is safe and able to be compiled. It's like having the master print of a movie; the film stock it's on might not be usable anymore, but it can be transferred to a new format. If I had it my way, providing source code would be a requirement when submitting a game to the Copyright office: that way, no matter what happens, we know that someone has a copy."

There is, however, another way. All 61 de-listed XBLA games are available for download on bit torrent services, where they've been pirated and made available to play on a hacked console. Some believe that piracy is our best current form of video game preservation. But even piracy cannot be entirely relied on. For multiplayer games the require active servers, preserving the experience once those servers are shutdown is near impossible, while pirates copies do not archive the various iterations of some contemporary games as they are modified week to week by their creators. "It isn't like the old days where creators would finish a game, burn it on a disc, and call it 'final'," explains Cifaldi. "Games evolve on the fly now. FarmVille is one of the defining games of the early part of the 21st century. But it is a game that was updated constantly. Can we recreate the game's evolution and see what Zynga learned as it went? I'd wager not."

James Newman is a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Bath Spa University in the UK, and the author of Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence, a book that investigates the issues and challenges of video game preservation. "The common phrase used in preservation circles is that we risk ending up in a 'digital dark age' because so much material that defines our current era immaterial and ephemeral," he tells me, with foreboding flourish. "Unless we do something, our ability to document the period in which we lived will be significantly reduced."

For Newman, the problem that many video game archive projects face is that it is almost impossible for people to bequest digital-only games. "In a world of material objects, it is comparatively easy to donate objects to museums, collections, libraries," he says. "In a world of digital assets, it isn't just hard, it is often impossible -- both technically and legally. Read a video game's EULA and often you find that 'your stuff' often isn't 'your stuff' at all. You might own a license to use it under certain conditions, but even if you could find a way to transfer the data, it often isn't yours to transfer."

This problem isn't unique to games. Many libraries face similar issues in relation to e-books. Newman, however, believes that there are other workable and arguably more valuable ways of preserving our video game heritage. "If we think the purpose of game preservation is to keep games playable forever then we should try to capture code, emulate systems and plead with publishers not to delist or deactivate servers. But if we think about the period of time in which a game can be played as being finite and recognise that at some point in the future the game might not be playable either because it is inaccessible or all the Xbox Ones have worn out, then the thing we really need to do is document this moment."

For Newman, documentary, not maintenance is the long-term solution. "For me -- and this is where I am probably going out on a limb in relation to some of my colleagues who work in game preservation -- the key is to stop worrying about stuff not lasting forever or games not being playable in hundreds of years time. They are playable now so we should celebrate and, most importantly, document that fact. Even if we could make everything playable forever, what would it mean to be able to play the games of today in 200 years? At the very least, we would want some context. We would want to see the games being played by people who understood them, hear their developers talking about them, see the art, stories, costumes that fans made, and watch the Let's Play videos."

Newman describes this as a shift in focus from 'game preservation' to 'gameplay preservation'. "Once you think about game preservation as a documentary activity the problem shifts a bit. You move from questions about ensuring long-term access to games that publishers want to switch off, to attempting to make available design documentation and discussing the process of game development. For me, working with developers and publishers in this way seems more potentially fruitful than trying to fight the fundamental business model of an industry whose continued existence is predicated on new titles and new sales."

While Newman's stance is provocative and divisive, he isn't fundamentally opposed to the idea of trying to keep games playable. He views the documentary work of archivists as working alongside those of game preservation: both are important. "I sometimes think of it in terms of preserving music," he says. "Having a piano in your collection is one thing. Maybe it's a special piano owned by somebody famous, or made by somebody brilliant. Letting me play on it is fun and informative to the extent that I can feel the movement of the keys but this isn't going to tell me much about what the piano was, the huge range of different styles of music it gave rise to, the social and cultural conventions of its use, the virtuoso performances, and so on. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have recordings of Beethoven or Mozart actually performing? We need to make sure we preserve the Beethovens and Mozarts of gaming while there is still a chance."

Cifadi's advice to game-makers is plainer and has the urgency of an archivist watching in dismay as the present burns up as it passes into the past. "Backup, backup, backup," he says. "I say: don't worry about the tough stuff -- as in, making the games run again. Right now, just keep what we have safe. Document everything. Put it somewhere secure. Then let the future deal with how to get it working."

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